Since its passage with all-party support in 1969, the Official Languages Act has made the protection of Quebec’s anglophone minority a stated mission of the federal government. This has led to more than a few epic clashes as successive Quebec governments moved to strengthen the status of the French language within the majority-francophone province.
“We believe in two official languages and in a pluralist society, not merely as a political necessity but as an enrichment,” then-prime-minister Pierre Trudeau said in introducing his bill to ensure the equality of French and English within federal institutions.
“We want to live in a country in which French Canadians can choose to live among English Canadians and English Canadians can choose to live among French Canadians without abandoning their cultural heritage.”
The ideal of a country in which French and English can co-exist on an equal footing without one overpowering the other has never come close to being realized. Francophones employed in the federal public service know all too well that their right to work in French exists more in theory than in practice. The irresistible force of attraction of English has left francophones both within and outside Quebec feeling they are in a survivalist race against the clock.
For proponents of linguistic Darwinism, most of them unilingual anglophones, this does not appear to be a problem that needs fixing. They rail relentlessly against Quebec’s treatment of its anglophone minority, sometimes using loaded terms borrowed from apartheid-era South Africa or the Balkans war of the 1990s.
Yet, no one can honestly argue that English is threatened in Quebec. In the Montreal region, where the vast majority of the province’s anglophones and immigrants live, anyone can live and work almost exclusively in the language of Shakespeare.
This does not suggest that Quebec’s historic anglophone minority does not feel besieged at times, as it fights to preserve its own institutions. The current Coalition Avenir Québec government has remained tone-deaf to the concerns of Anglo-Quebeckers, who often feel like political roadkill as the CAQ tries to fend off attacks from the separatist Parti Québécois on the language file. But when it comes to fighting for their cultural survival, Quebec’s anglophones are hardly in the same boat as francophones outside the province, or even francophones within it.
This reality is behind the demand from Premier François Legault’s government that Ottawa amend the Official Languages Act to reflect the unequal status of French and English within Canada. “One must no longer speak of equality, but rather of equity, when it comes to language matters,” Quebec’s Minister of Canadian Relations, Sonia LeBel, said this month in tabling her government’s official request.
“Equality means giving the same thing to everyone, but the needs are not the same. To ensure equity and strengthen French everywhere in Canada, one needs [to adopt] the notion of asymmetry between the two [official] languages.”
Quebec’s demand that the Official Languages Act recognize that French is “the only official language in a minority situation across Canada” raises certain challenges for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who entered politics championing his father’s vision of official bilingualism. The federal Liberal base in Quebec remains concentrated in mainly anglophone or allophone ridings in Montreal and western Quebec. Yet, many Liberals contend that their party’s path to a majority victory in the next election involves picking up more seats in francophone Quebec.
Hence, the recent interest expressed by Mr. Trudeau and Mélanie Joly, his minister responsible for the Official Languages Act, in protecting French in Quebec. The white paper on amendments to the law that Ms. Joly tabled on Friday indicates that language will be at the heart of the next federal campaign in the province as the Liberals seek to cast themselves as defenders of French, even if it means abandoning their party’s fealty to official bilingualism. The updated act would require Ottawa to “protect and promote the use of French everywhere in Canada, including Quebec, through, among other things, new rights regarding language of work and services in enterprises under federal jurisdiction in Québec.”
The measures proposed by Ms. Joly ultimately fall short of forcing federally regulated companies to comply with workplace requirements of Quebec’s Charter of the French Language, or Bill 101, as the province has demanded. It might be too much to expect any Liberal federal government to agree to countenance a Quebec law with as much symbolic freight in the rest of Canada. But Mr. Trudeau appears to be prepared to distance himself from his father’s legacy far more than anyone could have predicted just a few years ago.
“For Canada to remain a bilingual country, Quebec must be first and foremost francophone,” Mr. Trudeau said in December when questioned about his intentions on the language file.
Politics aside, his comments represent a recognition that his father’s vision was never really all it was cracked up to be.